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Scan it as long as you want, but you won’t find any poetry by Yeats in Ireland in Mind, a newly released anthology of writing about Ireland. Nor will you find any dialogue by playwright Sean O’Casey. Alice Leccese Powers—the Washington-based freelance writer and writing teacher who edited the book—wanted only the words of Irish expatriates and foreigners who set out to discover the real Ireland.
“I wanted people who saw Ireland either from a physical or a psychological distance,” she says. “Those who left, like Joyce, had to filter Ireland through their memory. Those who traveled there had to figure out what the place was like. Both were seeing through the same telescope, but fitted with different lenses.”
Ultimately, Powers’ cast of writers included such giants as Beckett, Joyce, Shaw, Swift, Trollope, Wilde, and Woolf, as well as scribblers of a more recent vintage, including Frank McCourt and Paul Theroux. Among them, she says, there was a diversity of opinion. The German writer Heinrich Boll produced a “charming” Irish journal, even though he’s best known for his darker writings. Sixty-six-year-old Eric Newby ran into horrible luck when he set out on a bike trip through the countryside, yet he made it through cheerfully, with the help of many pints in pubs. By contrast, Virginia Woolf “didn’t like the country very much at all,” Powers says. “And some writers came away completely clueless.”
Powers’ Ireland book is a companion to her previous volume, Italy in Mind. She detects one big difference between the writings on Italy and Ireland: Because many of the writers who visited Italy could not speak Italian, they focused their words more on the land and on how Italians looked and acted, rather than on what they said. Because most of the visitors to Ireland could speak with the Irish people, they could understand the country on a deeper level. “Words are like currency in Ireland,” Powers says. “Talking is what the Irish have always done for entertainment.”—Louis Jacobson